The most exclusive US colleges: 10 schools with the lowest acceptance rates

hardest colleges to get into
US is well known for having some of the hardest colleges to get into overall. Source: Chris duMond/North America/Getty Images/AFP

The hardest colleges to get into in the US claim to be superior for a variety of reasons.

Be it for its exclusivity, location, rigorous academia, how expensive it is, a who’s who network or the level of validation it brings to graduates, these are places many families go to great lengths to get their children admitted.

Who can forget one of the biggest college admissions scams involving Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, coaches, and admission officers back in 2019?

The celebs paid up to half a million dollars to get their daughters into the University of Southern California — even going so far as to lie about their extracurricular and athletic achievements.

Their desperation may have led to them facing criminal charges — but for the rest of us, they serve an important lesson.

And that is: the hardest colleges to get into in the US show us that it’s not just good grades and test scores that matter.

The factors considered by many admissions officers are more well-rounded. They look at each applicant from many angles.

These include their achievements, interests and potential. And while this is fairer than just looking solely at grades, it’s harder in the sense as you can never guess the formula to getting accepted.

Each of the hardest colleges to get into has its own unique reasons for rejecting thousands of applications they receive per year.

Many do not specify their explicit reasons for this but by putting together many news reports, we can understand better why they turn away seemingly qualified and deserving students every year.

Stanford University

Stanford University is one of the hardest colleges to get into in the US. Every year, thousands of hopeful students apply here, and a small handful gets in — as few as 4%.

According to the university’s website, it says their admissions team practises a holistic approach.

This means there is no minimum GPA or test score or number of AP or honours courses to complete to get in. So why so exclusive?

Here’s why. It is one of the most highly sought-after institutions in the world. It has award-winning academics and professors, is close to Silicon Valley and is an active campus.

It’s where Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin attended Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Being so popular leads to more applicants than it has spots for. Its already large pool of applicants grew even larger when it went test optional. With applicants not having to submit an SAT or ACT score, that means more people are applying than ever before.

The larger the applicant pool, the lower the acceptance rate, if there’s no corresponding increase in spots available.

hardest colleges to get into

Former president Barack Obama graduated from one of the hardest colleges to get into. Source: Dia Dipasupil /Getty Images/AFP

Harvard University

When you think of the hardest colleges to get into, it’s no surprise Harvard University comes to mind.

The private institution is one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions in the world.  It is also one of the wealthiest in the US.

Harvard’s 5,000-acre campus houses 12 schools, two theatres and five museums, and the largest academic library in the world.

The acceptance rate for the class of 2026 was 3.2%, while for the class of 2027, it was 3.41%.

Like Stanford, it has few spaces and many applicants. But a look at its “What We Look For” admissions page reveals another possible reason that makes it one of the hardest colleges to get into.

Harvard is searching for “individuals who will inspire those around them during their college years and beyond.”

To assess this, the admissions teams will consider the following long list of points:

  • Have you reached your maximum academic and personal potential?
  • Have you been stretching yourself?
  • Have you been working to capacity in your academic pursuits, your full-time or part-time
  • employment, or other areas?
  • Do you have reserve power to do more?
  • How have you used your time?
  • Do you have initiative? Are you a self-starter? What motivates you?
  • Do you have a direction yet? What is it? If not, are you exploring many things?
  • Where will you be in one, five, or 25 years? Will you contribute something to those around you?
  • What sort of human being are you now? What sort of human being will you be in the future?

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College is another member of the Ivy League and is known for its rigorous academics and strong undergraduate focus.

The acceptance rate at Dartmouth was 6.4% for the 2026 class applications.

Students looking to go here must excel in high school and have an average SAT score between 1440-1560 or an average ACT score of 32-35.

What makes it so coveted? The Carnegie Foundation classified it as a “research university with very high research activity.”

Despite it being one of the hardest colleges to get into, Dartmouth aims to be as diverse and inclusive as possible through various initiatives and engagements.

Therein lies another factor that makes it one of the hardest colleges to get into: diversity.

To show it has a balance of representation in its student body, a college may prioritise the application of certain racial groups.

That will depend on the applications they get every year and what form of representation it needs to improve.

It could be looking to admit more applicants from lower-income backgrounds by a certain percentage in one year and by another factor — like, country — by another percentage in the next year.

As it is so uncertain, luck plays a big role in your chances of getting in too.

Yale University

Yale University is the third oldest higher education institution in the US and is famous for its strong reputation in academics and first-class research.

Its prestigious reputation is reflected in QS World University Rankings 2023, where it’s ranked 18th.

Yale College admitted 2,275 students to the class of 2027 from its largest-ever pool of 52,250 applicants.

Yale also practices optional submission of standardised testing scores, which means if students do not want to submit SAT or ACT scores, they need to pay attention to high school transcripts, recommendation letters, and essays.

Those who submitted the Coalition Application, Common Application, or QuestBridge Application have to respond to the following short answer questions:

  1. Students at Yale have time to explore their academic interests before committing to one or more major fields of study. Many students either modify their original academic direction or change their minds entirely. As of this moment, what academic areas seem to fit your interests or goals most comfortably? Please indicate up to three from the list provided.
  2. Tell us about a topic or idea that excites you and is related to one or more academic areas you selected above. Why are you drawn to it? (200 words or fewer)
  3. What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

So here’s another factor that makes Ivy Leagues some of the hardest colleges to get into: your answers have to stand out from thousand others.

hardest colleges to get into

The Blue Devils have a diverse team of players that have won championships before. Source: Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images/AFP

Duke University

For the Class of 2026 at Duke University, the Regular Decision acceptance rate was 4.6%.

In its “What we look for” page, it states that application essays and two recommendation letters are critical pointers that will help boost a student’s credibility.

What was notable about the high school seniors to the Class of 2027 was their engagement in community service.

“Teachers and counsellors made sure to tell us about the times when students tangibly supported each other, and we expect those values to be noticeable when they come to Duke,” says Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag.

“I think the combination of talent, diversity and community will be a hallmark of the Class of 2027.”

Princeton University

Princeton University in New Jersey is one of the oldest universities in the country and one of the eight members of the Ivy Leagues.

It is also known to be one of the best in terms of research, faculty and academics.

The acceptance rate is 4%. Half of the applicants that are admitted here have SAT scores between 1460 and 1570 or an ACT score of 33 and 35.

Its admissions team aims to bring together a close-knitted but diverse group of high-achieving and intellectually gifted students from all over the globe.

Students can begin the application process by using three action steps: Submit, Request and Report.

To help with this process, students are then given a “Princeton Supplement” which consists of these additional questions, among others.

  1. What academic areas most pique your curiosity, and how do the programmes offered at Princeton suit your particular interests? (250 words or fewer)
  2. Please describe why you are interested in studying engineering at Princeton (for B.S.E degree applicants)
  3. Briefly elaborate on an activity, organisation work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (150 words or fewer)
  4. Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects.
hardest colleges to get into

Seismologist Lucy Jones studies the impact of an earthquake at Caltech. Source: Robyn Beck/AFP

California Institute of Technology

Students clamour to get into the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech, for one reason: research.

It boasts of very high research activity and is defined by its prowess in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Every year, about 235 new students join their ranks For the Class of 2025, Caltech accepted 3.92% of first-year applicants.

Its admissions team recruits students with the most strength and diversity — which can be many things. To them, there is no single type of “Caltech student”.

Each application is reviewed by two officers before it goes into faculty review. This is a process that is unique to Caltech.

Recently, Caltech accepted 412 students across six continents to its Class of 2027.

More than one-third got in because they submitted a portfolio of creative and maker work, while 45% gave evidence of their own research.

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania is a proud member of the Ivy League and a founding member of the Association of American Universities.

Every year, thousands of students apply here. For the Class of 2026, 2,400 students across all four schools — the College, Wharton, Penn Engineering, or Penn Nursing — were admitted.

“We read through nearly 55,000 applications — 55,000 individual stories,” says Dean of Admissions, Whitney Soule, to Penn Today.

Its 270th class is a standout because of the students’ “intellect, character, integrity, and persistence.”

When asked how she admissions team sifts through applications and chooses a class, Soule says they’re looking for a “match”:

“When I say ‘match’ I mean the students have a good understanding of Penn and what they might want to do when they get here, and that we understand those interests and how they might align with the Penn community.”

“When we are reading, we are thinking critically about each of the school’s goals, spaces available, how they want to see this particular class this year come together, and so on.”

hardest colleges to get into

Queen Noor of Jordan receives an honorary degree from one of the hardest colleges to get into, Brown University. Source: John Mottern/AFP

Brown University

Brown University is the seventh oldest institution in the US and is a member of the Ivy League. It was the first member to accept students from all religious backgrounds.

This year, Brown will welcome 1,730 students from a total of 51,302 applicants for the class of 2027.

With an overall acceptance rate of 5.08% and a 3.8% for regular decisions, this year marked the second-most selective application cycle in Brown’s history.

“We look for intelligent, highly motivated students from all walks of life who may come from diverse backgrounds and cultural heritages, who represent different academic and extracurricular interests, and who bring a spectrum of ideologies to Brown,” its website states.

What about grades?

“The fact is that it does not make sense for us to focus solely on grades as there are other indications of academic and intellectual talent,” its website states. “We know that grades at one school are not awarded in the same way as they are at another school.”

“The same applies to class rank. Everything else being equal, students with high grades often do stand out among our applicants, but we do not make our admissions decisions based on a grade average or class rank without also considering the many other factors that help us gauge an applicant’s promise.”

hardest colleges to get into

Plenty of research and trialling in engineering are conducted at MIT. Source: Joseph Prezioso/AFP

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private land grant research university that was established in 1861.

As a leading technical school, MIT attracts students worldwide for its engineering, mathematics, and computer science programmes.

The college loves data, and uses this in its application process. Good test scores aren’t the only aspect they look at, rather how you match with MIT is key.

The college encourages students to read blog entries to help them identify what the process is all about. Here you’d find warm, funny and entertaining stories to help you get through the tough steps.

For the class of 2026, MIT’s acceptance rate stood at 3.96%, which saw 33, 767 applications come in.

There were 14,781 early applicants, 18,986 for regular action and 763 on the wait list.

On a kinder note students, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get into any of these colleges above. it doesn’t mean that’s the end of your journey.

The truth is, no matter how good your grades are or how accomplished you were in high school, getting into an Ivy League is never a guarantee.

Take Arabian student Alsamraee, for instance.

He was a student with two successful books endorsed by two New York Times bestselling authors, had a 4.2 GPA, achieved a SAT score of 1,560 out of 1,600.

That was not all he achieved. He also won a string of math and science awards, was science team captain, a Wolfram intern at 17 and played for varsity football and wrestling teams.

Yet, he was still rejected from a few Ivy League schools, some outrightly, while the others put him on their waiting lists. His plight was highlighted by TikTok user Limmy(@Limmytalks)

Limmy has since revealed that Alsamraee was accepted into NYU, Stanford, West Point and Washington University and has since become a student at Stanford.